With only one film to his credit, Shane Carruth can tick off at least eight film professions: cinematographer, editor, composer, writer, director, producer, casting director, and lead actor. The film is Primer. Like Darren Aronofsky's Pi, it's a low-budget science-fiction indie that makes virtues of its limitations. I spoke with Shane Carruth at San Francisco's Hotel Carlton, on October 11, 2004.
Groucho: So your inspiration for the script partly came from reading about mathematical and scientific discoveries, is that right?
Shane Carruth: Yeah. I mean, I got my setting from that. I knew what the story was, like, thematically, before it turned into a science story, but yeah, yeah, it was from innovation.
G: Can you talk about what it was in those readings that you took for the film?
SC: Yeah, um, you know, there's these commonalities. And some of them I know specifically, and then other things are just kind of an accumulation of a lot of little details but, you know, this idea—like John Beardon and the transistor. You know, he's trying to perfect—or to get a more—a pure vacuum tube that will be more efficient and accidentally discovers the transistor from the materials that are lying around in his lab. And, you know, it's just—you know, the transistor, of course, it's by an order of magnitude above this vacuum tube and it's—but it was completely an accident, and for the most part it was a thing that he was trying to get rid of: this ability of resistance and non-resistance. It was—I don't know. So there's that. The idea of, like, Newton and the calculus is almost the same thing. He's got this amazing power that is dependent on the idea of, you know, an infinite number of infinitely small parts. And, from what I was reading, it says that he didn't like this idea. It was very uncomfortable because 1) when you talk about infinity at the time, it was not an easy thing to discuss because it said something about God. I mean, if you can talk about infinity, then you're talking about something much bigger. And so they were uncomfortable with that. But it was also the fact that it seemed silly, I guess, that there was this powerful concept built on this thing that, um—I don't know another way to put it. But they just, um—it didn't seem like sound to talk about infinity. And so, you know, he's trying his best to get rid of this thing, but it ends up being, you know—it's a—I don't know, it's like a necessary attribute. I don't know. There's that, there's the—I feel like I'm all over the place now; I'm not being very precise. But in—the Wright brothers: you know, they fly at the Paris Air Show, and they pilot this prototype or this plane around, and it's in the air for twenty minutes. And people still aren't sure about it. They're still—I mean, it's three years later until they actually get a contract to build planes. I mean, I think—you know, in my head, I'm thinking, "Oh, it was Kitty Hawk, and the next day they got, you know, a hundred million dollars to build planes, and they're, y'know, king of the world." And it's just—there's always that weird moment when the thing exists in the world, but no one knows what it is yet. And no one can appreciate what it is. So, I mean, there's a lot of little things like that that just seem like—I don't know. The way true stuff happens seems to have kind of a feel to it that I wanted to see.
G: Other than being evocative of modern discoveries—or the work of Apple computers and that sort of thing—the garage afforded you a comfortable location—or a controllable location—.
G: Can you discuss some of the challenges of shooting on a budget on location and on a tight schedule?
SC: Sure. I don't know where to start. I guess the biggest one is, um—well, I don't know what the biggest one was. But because of the budget, you know, we only had enough footage to shoot what was needed. There was, you know, only one take of everything. And not only that, but it was only the lines from any given shot that I knew I would need, with an overlap of maybe one or two lines. You know, that's—it's very—it's odd, and it's frustrating, and you're—. Luckily we had rehearsed for about a month in advance, and so we kinda—we knew everything cold. But, you know, being asked to—y'know, sometimes we would pick up right in the middle of a conversation and just do three lines, which you've got to perform as if they're stacked between the conversation. And so we did it a couple different ways. One was just to "Okay, let's turn the camera on and let the actor figure it out. Y'know, just perform it as if it just happened, or as if it should fit in there. And then we were kind of doing stuff where, you know, "Okay, start performing it, and we're gonna turn the camera on about the time when we need the lines to be recorded." So, I mean, there's things like that. There's the Texas heat in July, which is insane. We never got that garage cooled lower than 80 degrees, I think. There weren't really—there weren't producers on the film, and so that was kind of frustrating because I didn't really know how big this thing, or how complicated it was going to get. And so my time was spent—you know, we'd lose a location, so I'd be scrambling around to secure another location, or picking up the camera from the rental facility, taking the film to the lab, making sure actors are wearing the right clothes—you know, picking f-stops and checking—. You know, it just, it never—it feels like it wasn't really directed; it was just kind of roughly orchestrated. And that was—it's not a very satisfying process. I think, not just for me, but for the other five guys involved, you know, everybody's having to do double duty on different jobs, and it's just—.
G: Right. What I think sounds most surprising to me is that you were able to maintain a level of commitment from that core group. How difficult was that? Did you come to a head with people that you were—
SC: I'm surprised that they stayed because—yeah. 'Cause they'd started off—I mean, there were maybe twelve people that showed up for the first time, and it was, you know—maybe by day three or four, we were down to our core group. And they stuck it out through the end of the month. But, um, yeah, it was not a fun place to be, and especially not to be giving up your free time. Because, you know, everybody's working part-time jobs through this.
SC: I don't know why they stayed, to be honest. I mean, I know David Sullivan: he's an actor, and he wants to be an actor, so—and his face is all over, so he's got some definite investment in the film getting completed. But as far as everyone else, I think—I don't know. I don't know what it was exactly.
G: Hm. You were, of course, self-taught as a filmmaker. Can you talk about how you became familiar with or comfortable with the technology to shoot the film and also the process of storyboarding the film, knowing what you wanted to shoot?
SC: Right. Yeah, I didn't know anything about it, so I just tried to piece it apart the best as I could. You know, I got paranoid about cinematography...'cause I had been told that it's very difficult to get an image on film—and it is. And so I read as much as I could, and when I finally realized that it was just photography with a set shutter speed, then that meant that I could experiment with it cheaply. I had an old 35mm still camera, and I bought some tungsten slide film to mimic the tungsten motion picture film. And I just—I went about storyboarding the script, shot by shot, the way that I imagined it. And so I could really just take my time picking compositions and experimenting with depth-of-field and color temperature and different lighting set-ups. So yeah, by the end of it, by the time we were shooting, we had the script and we had these slides, and y'know, you put the two together, and you've got an idea of what the film's gonna look like.
G: Now, did you have to train somebody else to be—were you your own cinematographer? Were you lighting all the set ups, or how did that work?
SC: Umm, yeah. There were—I mean, there was very little lighting equipment there. Most of it is practicals and available light. I bought some daylight-balanced fluorescent bulbs from Wal-Mart that cost me thirty bucks. And I would use those—like the general principal in the garage was to flood the room with this blue light and then isolate different areas with tungsten practical—(gestures at the lights) well, these are fluorescent, but a normal light bulb would tend to go yellow on the tungsten film. And that, to me, seemed—you know, it seemed to be interesting, and it looked real, so that's kind of the two things I was hoping for. And, I don't know, most locations—it's mainly just available light that we tried to use in the best way possible. Yeah, I mean, it was all—it was pretty much pre-set-up with the storyboards.
G: Huh. Both you and David Sullivan give terrific, subtle performances. You're the casting director. Explain how you two ended up in the leads.
SC: Um, I tried out, um, a hundred guys. I added five casting calls. And I was very frustrated with the process. I couldn't—you know, I wasn't offering to pay anybody, and, y'know, they were showing up, and they wouldn't look at the material. I was so worried. I made sure to give it to 'em. I emailed everybody. There were a few people, I actually went by their house to deliver it to them—the page or so—and it was only—it was a small paragraph at the top of a page that they were trying out with. But I couldn't get them to prepare it. So I would ask everybody back for a second time, or at least the guys that kinda fit the rough description of what these guys were supposed to be, and again, it was just—y'know, they wouldn't look at the material. So by the third time, David Sullivan memorized the paragraph. And that was just it. That was the end of it. I—immediately, he was cast. But it was so frustrating, and I realized through that process that if I cast somebody and they work out for, like, three weeks, but then they leave, I can't recover from that with this budget. So I tried to limit the number of people that could break this thing. And so I figured I was roughly the same age, and I'd memorized a good portion of the script by that time, just kind of showing these guys what I was looking for, so I just tried to—I stepped into it.
G: Despite their intellect, Aaron and Abe are essentially childish. Where does Aaron's need to prove himself heroic come from?
SC: I just assumed that that was universal. Y'know, I just—I've set this premise up and I'm trying to watch these guys follow their baser instincts, and I guess just—you know, money is the obvious one, and I was trying to figure out, you know, what is next? What is—once you have that money, what do you want? And I guess—maybe I'm just giving myself away there, because I think, y'know, that's what I would want, is to be considered a hero or noble or something good by other people.
G: Yeah. I suppose it might also be a function of having this great deed that he has to sit on, too, of having discovered what he's discovered and can't share.
SC: Right. I hadn't thought about that.
G: So the title refers in part to a moral initiation—is that right?
SC: Yeah, I mean that's where—I picked it for a couple different reasons, but yeah. Just the idea: this beginning lesson plan for these guys. But yeah, I mean, y'know, later on when they are actually talking about this—using this machine and going through the day over and over and over again, or what—they have to plan for the idea that it's been going through over and over again—y'know, where the experience of the first is the same as the second is the same as the third: that power position is always the first [sent] through. He's always the guy you want to pretend to be. You don't want to think you're in someone else's past, and that you're just one of an infinite number. So yeah, to be prime, or primer, seemed appropriate.
G: So the story—it plays like a cautionary tale. I think it is one, in moral terms. In terms of scientific inquiry, do you think there are some discoveries better left undiscovered?
SC: That's the thing, is I think any story that has science fiction in it, if it ends badly, it can be called a cautionary tale. And, I mean, yeah, there's definitely like—I was definitely thinking about those things in the story, but if it wasn't universal and about how relationships can be corrupted because of power, then I don't think I would have done it. Because there's definitely—I mean, it is interesting: I have the same worries, I guess, as anybody that—you know, my mom always says there's nothing new under the sun, but we're rapidly getting to the point where I don't think that's true anymore. I mean, the innovation is turning exponential. I mean, everybody knows that. It just—yeah, I don't know—you know, who knows if it's going to be a kid with his own home virus kit or a kid with his own home atomic bomb kit, but it's like, at one point, how do we police all these ideas that exist that are out there? So yeah, I mean, there's—I guess there was a little of that in the fact—I don't know. Maybe they're the same, to be honest. They kind of feel the same.
G: Let's talk a little bit about the issue of confusion arising from the film.
G: You designed a complete picture puzzle, I think, and then removed some of the pieces—and the audience's journey through the film is partly trying to connect those pieces that they watch, I think. Do you think it is any more confusing than is necessary or is that—it seems kind of integral to telling a time-travel tale.
SC: See, that's the thing is, yeah, I think the device dictates that it's going to be complicated. Like, you know, we're talking about causality and paradoxes and, y'know, looping, and it just—I know that there's a way to sum it up, and to have that nice tidy ending—
SC: But it seems like it just does the subject matter a disservice to do that. And, you know, I was worried about it as I was writing, trying to make sure "Okay, is there enough information here?" and I guess the thing is is I'm confident that there is. I mean, the information is in there. And there are people that walk out of it and, you know, for the most part, they know every little thing, and if they see it a second time, then it's just—now it's a done deal. It's just I think the thing is is it's such a different film—it's, I think—I guess my opinion is that it has a lot to do with expectations. If people know what they're getting into, it seems like it's a much different experience. But, um, yeah, I mean, it's not summed up.
G: Right. Certainly there is something to be said for ambiguity. It makes the film a more intense experience. I think every person probably has a few things that they leave questioning or unsure about. But, as you said, I think a lot of people—they know more than they think they do.
SC: See, that's what I've kind of found, is, yeah, someone will ask a question, and I'll say, "What do you think it is?" and nine times out of ten, they're—it's what I intended. And I think—like in the Q&A's and stuff—what happens is—like especially at Sundance, I was very worried about the Q&A's turning into, y'know, plot-by-plot synopsis. And, yeah, at first, y'know, a bunch of hands would go up, and I could—you can kinda just get that vibe that all these are all, like, plot-related questions. And I would answer, like, the first or second, and then that would really be kinda the end of it. And, from talking to people, my understanding was that—it's that people want to know that there are answers. They want to know that it does make sense. They don't necessarily want to know what those answers are. They just want to know that there's a method to it and that it's not some random assemblage of plot points, that there's—there's some—there's a reason why these things are happening.
G: Right. I think that comes across in the film. I think people sense that. Though I think people also want to be able to stand next to you, in the room where you have the charts on the wall and be able to follow that a little more clearly. Let me toss at you a few...and feel free to deflect or refuse to answer, but maybe some of these might be useful for people. The earpieces that are used to realign conversations: how do those function?
SC: Umm, well, y'know, Aaron has gone through the day, and he's recorded this conversation in case he needs to do it again. And so when he comes back, he is listening to each of these conversations in his earpiece. So that he can perform verbatim, the way he did the day before, so that he can—he can only tweak the things he needs to tweak, and everything else he knows will play the same. So that he can kind of get the people he needs to to that party and, y'know, load or unload the shotgun depending on what he wants the outcome to be.
G: Right. Mr. Granger is a fleeting character in the story and remains on the periphery. He's the father of Abe's girlfriend, right?
G: To me, it was somewhat unclear how he enters into their story.
SC: See, yeah, that's the thing—I—.
G: Maybe that's best left unsaid.
SC: Well, see, that's the thing is, y'know, the story is very complicated, but that's the one thing where there is—the information is purposefully not there. I mean, Abe and Aaron, for the most part, y'know, for this film, we're with Abe and Aaron, I think, and we're only learning the things that they know about. And they find themselves in a point where clearly this guy has used the machine. He's used it from some point in the future, and they know one of them must have told him, but they don't have any way of finding out any of those answers. And so, y'know, since it's the kind of the impetus for getting Abe to reboot everything—it's the first time he finds himself in someone else's past—it seemed wrong to tell the audience something that Abe and Aaron didn't have the ability to figure out themselves, at that point in time. And so it's left out because its so important that he feel like he's in an unknowable space, to explain why he would reboot everything.
SC: I mean, I know what he—I mean, I made sure that there was a way for it to go, and I—there's actually just little bits of stuff here and there, but yeah, it's just—that's information that's not in the film.
G: And when one Aaron confronts another Aaron, what is he trying to prevent himself from doing?
SC: Umm, what do you mean "prevent"?
G: Well, he restrains himself so that he won't be somewhere at a certain time.
SC: Well, I mean, when Aaron—see, the thing—when Abe and Aaron are using it to trade stocks, they're being very cautious, and they're maintaining symmetry with the hotel room, and they come back, they kind of free-reign, but this is a way they kind of contain the infinite number of doubles in that time-space, for that 9 to 3pm. And so, yeah, if you make it past then, everything's okay: there's only one of you because everything is contained there, and the experience of all of them is the same.
SC: What Aaron's doing—what we see that he's doing on that Monday—is not being cautious. He's just going back, y'know, knocking himself out so he can step into his life and re-perform all those things. So, yeah, so he does it once, and he does it again, and it's—you know, the narrator only knows about three possible loops.
G: Okay, enough quibbling about the plot.
G: In a stylistic sense, which filmmakers do you respond to, or have you responded to, and did you in any way emulate them with your first film?
SC: I really try not to. I mean, I—you know, Kubrick, P.T. Anderson, Soderbergh with—The Limey, I think, is this amazing film that, y'know, will probably take twenty years for people to realize that that was the one, I think—I don't know, I just think it's amazing. But, um, not, uh—Wong Kar-Wai. Wong Kar-Wai is amazing. I don't know, I try not to be too inspired. If I ever find myself, y'know, copying or ripping stuff off or, worse, paying homage...
SC: ...um, I'll try to change what I'm doing.
G: So now that you are primed as a filmmaker, what do you see in your future? Where do you want to take this?
SC: I've got four story ideas. And what I usually do is I collect about thirty or forty pages of notes before I start writing. And those are all properly notated. And I can't wait to see if I can get them made.
G: Alright, great. Well, thank you for talking to me.
SC: Thank you. Thanks for coming.